New Release: “Gospel Philosophy,” on science vs. the gospel in 1884

“Gospel Philosphy, Showing the Absurdities of Infidelity, and the Harmony of the Gospel with Science and History” by J. H. Ward is now available on Project Gutenberg, including its original illustrations, thanks to the work of Samuel Shreeve, our Utah State University summer intern.  It’s a fascinating treatment of the conflict (or lack thereof) between science and religion, treating both the history of said conflict and its current state as of 1884. (Samuel is a physicist and I’m a mechanical engineer, so we both have some natural interest in this.)

The history is enlightening, the 19th century science is amusing, and the book as a whole shows the need for scientific humility and the ineffectiveness of contrasting science and religion. Ward teaches the need to recognize the uncertainties of science (which have changed surprisingly little):

It is worthy of notice that the uncertainties of science increase just in proportion to our interest in it. About what does not concern us, it is very positive; but very uncertain about our dearest interests. The astronomer may calculate with considerable certainty the movements of distant planets with which we have no intercourse; but he cannot predict the heat or cold, clouds or sunshine, and other phenomena continually occurring on our earth. The forces of heat may be measured, to some extent, but what physician can measure the strength of the malignant fever that is destroying the life of his patient. The chemist can thoroughly analyze any foreign substance, but the disease of his own body, which is bringing him to the grave, he can neither weigh, measure nor remove. Science is very positive about distant stars and remote ages, but stammers and hesitates about the very lives of its professors.

 

He also (partly by accident) shows the danger of taking scientific claims too seriously, regardless of their avowed certainty or supposed applicability to religion. In this, the book may be more illustrative now than when it was written. Now, we view the 19th century as scientifically backward; at the time (not unlike at present) everyone was quite impressed with the recent progress of science. For example, science had achieved a new understanding of the sun:

The latest discoveries in science tend rather to demonstrate that the sun’s light is but very faintly visible on his globe; and that there is no such thing as solar heat. What is popularly called so is only the heat caused by the friction of the waves of light passing through the atmosphere, or striking against the earth. “We approach the question of the sun’s inhabitability,” says Sir David Brewster, “with the certain knowledge that the sun is not a red hot globe, but that its nucleus is a solid, opaque mass, receiving very little light from its luminous atmosphere.”

Does this support the Bible or not? Either way, for all its avowed certainty, it’s since been proven horribly wrong. Will today’s science look any better in another 130 years? We’ve certainly learned a lot, but we’re still struggling with basic questions about the Creation–for example, it was discovered only in 1998 that the expansion of the universe is accelerating, and we don’t understand why. Science is useful, valuable, enlightening, and entertaining, but regardless of which side you think you’re on, it isn’t a good sparring partner for religion–now, both sides of the 1884 debates too often look ridiculous.

This book’s value as an old perspective on a big contemporary issue is the main reason I read and would recommend it, but as a bonus, it also touches on dinosaurs (complete with engravings!), evolution, the age of the earth, prophecy, and more. At least flip through the online HTML version just for the engravings’ sake.

One thought on “New Release: “Gospel Philosophy,” on science vs. the gospel in 1884

  1. Pingback: New Release: “The Hand of Providence” by J. H. Ward | The Mormon Texts Project

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